Apprentice sailmaker Matt. Photo copyright Ratsey & Lapthorne.
An apprentice sail maker, boot tree maker and folding knife maker are among the recipients of the latest round of grants awarded to help safeguard some of the UK’s most endangered craft skills.
The Heritage Crafts Association (HCA), which last year published the second edition of its groundbreaking HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts, has awarded a further eight grants from its Endangered Crafts Fund, which was launched in July 2019 to increase the likelihood of endangered crafts surviving into the next generation.
This round of the HCA Endangered Crafts Fund has been offered with support from Allchurches Trust and The Radcliffe Trust. The eight successful recipients are:
- Ratsey & Lapthorne – to train an apprentice sail maker to craftsman level while making sails for a historic yacht (Isle of Wight).
- Horace Batten – to train an apprentice boot tree maker who will go on to work in-house at the boot making firm (Northamptonshire).
- Michael May – to equip his folding knife making apprentice with the tools he needs to learn all aspects of the trade (Sheffield).
- Justine Burgess – to train in Teifi and Tywi coracle making so that she can pass on the skills to others (Carmarthen).
- Eve Eunson – to record the skills of Fair Isle straw back chair making in a film that can be used to train others (Shetland).
- Coates Willow – to forge new tools for an apprentice working with one of the last practicing basketwork furniture makers (Somerset).
- Tom Boulton – to do a feasibility study into creating new wooden type for letterpress printing using CNC machining (West Sussex).
- Lorna Singleton – to buy a boiler and swiller’s mares (a special type of shave horse) to enable her to teach oak swill basket making to small groups (Cumbria).
Oak swill basket. Photo copyright Lorna Singleton.
These eight projects follow five awarded in the previous round, covering the endangered crafts of scissor making, damask weaving, cockle basket making, neon bending and fan making. Again the fund was massively oversubscribed and the HCA hopes to work with many of the unsuccessful candidates to identify other funding and support opportunities.
HCA Endangered Crafts Officer Mary Lewis said:
“When we first published the HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts the task of safeguarding so many at-risk skills seemed overwhelming. Thanks to the support of our donors and funders like Allchurches Trust and The Radcliffe Trust we now have thirteen projects underway, but there is still so much to do to ensure that future generations can continue to benefit from this important part of our culture.”
The Endangered Crafts Fund has been set up thanks to a number of generous donations from organisations including Allchurches Trust and The Radcliffe Trust, as well as individuals, who have donated sums from £5 right up to several thousands of pounds.
Paul Playford, who heads up the heritage grants programme at Allchurches Trust, said:
“It’s fascinating to see the wide range of endangered craftspeople and places that are represented in the latest Endangered Crafts Fund cohort, and we’re proud that our funding will help ensure that these at-risk crafts can be handed down, along with the tools and training needed to enable their protection in the longer term. We’re looking forward to hearing more from these skilled craftspeople as they develop their skills and hope to play our part in telling their story, raising awareness of ancient practices that are so important to preserve for future generations and hopefully inspiring others to follow their lead.”
The HCA has also announced that its President HRH The Prince of Wales has established a new award for endangered crafts. Each year the President’s Award for Endangered Crafts will present £3,000 to a heritage craftsperson who will use the funding to ensure that craft skills are passed on. The Award will be presented at a special reception at Dumfries House, home of The Prince’s Foundation, as well as at a prestigious winners’ reception at the Houses of Parliament. Applications are invited via www.heritagecrafts.org.uk/presidentsaward by Friday 1 May 2020.
The HCA continues to seek further donations to save even more of Britain’s most endangered crafts from oblivion. Donations are welcome at any time – for more information visit www.heritagecrafts.org.uk/ecf. Applications for grants are accepted on a rolling basis, with the next deadline for consideration 28 August 2020.
The Irish Government have registered their first list of 30 cultural practices as part of their commitment to the 2003 UNESCO Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, including traditional crafts such as tinsmithing, currach making, lacemaking, embroidery and basketmaking. Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan called these practices: “threads in the cultural tapestry of our lives that make us richer as individuals and as a country”.
Irish crafts registered include:
- Limerick lace
- Irish crochet lace
- Mountmellick embroidery
- Traveller tinsmithing
- Sea currach making
- Letterpress printing
- Carrickmacross lace
- Dry stone construction
- Boyne currach making
- Loy digging
In December 2017, Ireland ratified the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. In stark contrast, the UK is one of only 17 of the 193 UNESCO member states not to have ratified the Convention, and is thus unable to register its traditional practices alongside those being celebrated and safeguarded across the world.
Tinsmithing is on the UK Red List of Endangered Crafts as critically endangered, meaning that it is at serious risk of no longer being practiced in the UK, with the current expectation that it will enter the next edition of the list as extinct in the UK. Coracle making and letterpress are currently also on the UK endangered list, with certain forms of lacemaking, basketry and dry stone walling also facing uncertain futures.
The Heritage Crafts Association helped set up an All-Party Parliamentary Group for Craft last year and will be continuing to advocate for better recognition for intangible cultural heritage to UK Ministers and Government officials.
Image: Tinsmith James Collins photographed by Alan Betson
Printing using hand setting (composition) of type and material and a variety of presses.
|Historic area of significance
|Origins: Germany – (Mainz) ref: Johannes Gutenberg’s original invention of movable type.
UK: London (Fleet Street) and most UK Cities having printing districts and thinly in the countryside of England, Scotland and Wales – with most small towns have one or two letterpress printers.
|Area currently practised
|A number of presses and workshops in London with a scattering of presses in the home counties and dotted about across the UK.
|Origin in the UK
|Current no. of professionals (main income)
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|101-200 (see other information)
|Current no. of trainees
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
Letterpress printing was the normal form of printing text from its invention by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th century until the 19th century and remained in wide use for books and other uses until the second half of the 20th century. Letterpress printing remained the primary way to print and distribute information until the 20th century, when offset printing was developed, which largely supplanted its role in printing books and newspapers, but letterpress has survived thanks to small presses and artisan printers.
Prior to letterpress written information was published and distributed only by the wealthy – using monks to transcribe literature / religious texts by hand.
It was only in the late 20th century (circa 1980) through the development of digital type setting and printing by rotary offset lithography, that letterpress became obsolete.
Letterpress has survived thanks to a small number of commercial printers who have retained their letterpress equipment, print workshops and artisan printers.
- Manufacture type (maintain usable supplies / casting / pantograph tracing)
- Setting type on a stick (composition)
- Arrange and layout publication (composing in a form)
- Proof the type (quality control)
- Imposition (setting out pages for printing).
- Preparation of paper (cutting to size)
- Print (feed paper / inking / storage)
- Fold paper / trim to size / stitch
- Compile documents (book binding / stitching etc)
- Replace type into cases/ furniture for re use (dissing)
- Melt down damaged type / re-casting
- Service and maintenance of machinery
- Broadside production
- Billboards / advertising
- Bills of sale / auction listings
- Letter design
- Punch Cutting
- Type Casting (Monotype -metal) / Type manufacture (wood)
- Manufacture of lead ingots for casting
- Line / slug casting (Ludlow / Linotype)
- Flong making / stereotyping / casting
- Stamping / Foil making / Magnesium blocks / polymer plates
- Ink making
- Plate making / engraving (halftone blocks/ zinc, magnesium or copper blocks)
- Paper making / card / grey board / book cloth production / glue
- Form cutting
- Wood engraving
- Press maintenance / engineering
- Roller manufacture / roller re-covering
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Market issues: Letterpress can’t compete on speed of production and price with digital print. The process of letterpress printing by definition is slow. Large industrial / commercial spaces are needed to accommodate the equipment – whereas digital printing (its modern competitor) is fast and less space is needed for equipment (less commercial rent / faster turn-a-round / less waist / higher profits). Magnesium and Polymer plates can be manufactured to speed up the production process (made directly from digital files), but these are very expensive and a lot of purists discount these as diluting the craft.
- Lack of suitable premises: Cast iron presses / Composing stones / Furniture racks / Galley racks / Type cabinets etc. are heavy and take up large areas – this dictates the position (primarily ground floor) and scale of workshop spaces. Again, impacting on profitability and often resulting in printers working in converted garages / home studios; primarily driven by affordability.
- Skills issues: Letterpress printing (and the teaching / training of interested parties) has moved from being a skilled trade (City & Guilds) to becoming more craft based (less quantity – more short run art based results).
- Equipment and raw materials: A lot of equipment is required to carry out letterpress printing to a professional standard. It is a challenge to maintain the materials, presses and type in working order – servicing and maintaining a printing press is a specialised skill in itself. Due to the lead content of metal letters a large number of colleges have elected to dismantle their letterpress print departments. Coupled with the high value in scrap lead – a number of colleges have elected to sell off complete collections of metal type to bolster finances – in some instances to invest in computers (for design based studies) turning away from analogue processes completely.
- Equipment and raw materials: The materials needed to print (the letters themselves) are inherently fragile (cast from lead or manufacture from wood) – they wear out, when dropped become damaged and unfortunately unusable. Since the development of mechanical casting machines at the end of the nineteenth century, metal letters are designed to be melted down when damaged and re-cast. A high proportion of type available today will be well beyond its envisaged life span. Replacement letters are becoming rarer to find with only a small number of foundries still in operation in the UK. Replacements (where they can be found) are expensive. Wood letters have become a valuable resource on Ebay and are often sold individually – this results in cases being plundered and reducing complete alphabets to work with – cases are currently sold in antiques markets for decoration / wall mounted storage.
- Ageing workforce: The age of the people running type foundries is increasing. There is little or no funding for trainees or apprentices, as a result, skills are being lost. There is also a low level of awareness in young people in a skill that is not in high demand. This could result in casting machines being scrapped or used as non-working museum exhibits. Due to their scale more often, museums do not have the capacity to exhibit them resulting in large numbers of machines being dismantled for scrap.
- Skills issues: There are few people with the skills to repair and service presses. Most printing presses are manufactured from cast iron – very strong in compression but weak in tension. When presses are damaged, they are very difficult to repair (cast iron is very difficult to weld), and are often scrapped.
- Health and Safety: Due to concerns about tetra-ethyl lead in petrol and the use of lead oxide in paint, there are also concerns around the use of lead type. Lead type can be used safely as long as sensible precautions are taken such as washing your hands and not putting type in your mouth.
- Letterpress Workers (LPW) (Milan Italy)
- Association of European Printing Museums
- Nordic Letterpress Association
Craftspeople currently known
Businesses employing two or more makers:
There are large number of people using small table-top presses, such as Adana, to manufacture small printed items such as greetings cards. These require a relatively basic skill set and are a very good entry level equipment. The current rising cost of such presses is impacting on new learners accessing and using them. Once mastered it can be difficult for learners to progress as there are only a small number of people having a working knowledge and ability to teach letterpress at a higher level.
Workshops teaching people the basic craft skills have blossomed recently (bolstered by interest generated following craft programmes on television [sewing bee / repair shop etc]) and are generating interest in the craft along with a renewed appreciation of the tactile quality of print.
On-line across social media platforms (specifically Instagram) an active dialogue is being propelled, helping to foster an interest in the craft, coupled with support and advice. After the restrictions of Covid 19 were released physical gatherings of letterpress printers (Wayzgoose) have helped bring together disparate groups of practitioners – helping to market the craft to the public
Air B’n’B experiences are a new arena for short residential courses (one currently being developed by Carl Middleton – Studio B, to be listed in 2023).
A number of articles published in Pressing Matters magazine directly relating to letterpress have helped foster new interest in the craft.
Degree and post-graduate study
There is some renewed interest in letterpress with some students choosing to experiment with the technique. There is very little capacity in many Universities to provide a comprehensive letterpress studio and dedicated technicians. Most letterpress facilities have been lost as focus has moved more towards digital design.
There are however some Universities that offer letterpress facilities:
Specialist short courses
Bodleian Library: Offers six week courses
Many letterpress printers will offer short courses and ‘have a go’ sessions in letterpress.